You know that feeling you get when it’s almost the end of a book, and you start measuring the pages left against the potential conclusions and you realize that there is way more story left than pages assigned to the book? And then you realize that there is no way a satisfying conclusion can be drawn from so few pages? So you start monitoring the pages more actively and the end of the book starts barreling at you, but the story just lopes along at the same mid-plot pace?
And then you turn to the final page and, as suspected, you realize you just entered Sequel-ville?
That’s Blackout by Connie Willis. And it just happened to me.
I loved Blackout. Here’s why.
1. It’s about time travel. Time travel is one of those SF tropes that I just can’t get enough of. Ironically, with time travel, the possibilities are endless, despite the expectation that we know what will happen. The potential for paradoxes, butterfly-effects, and sleeping with grandparents can turn bread-and-butter time tourists into full-blown agents of chaos. Anything can happen to upset the backdrop of predictability. It’s a brilliant device for mystery and suspense, that has the potential to devolve into silliness, but Willis handles it with flair.
2. It’s about history. In Blackout, Willis cleverly chose the best kind of time tourists– historians. Historians are the only people in the world who pride themselves on being unbiased, uninvolved, and dispassionate about their passions. As a political science major who was forced upon these people in shared classes in graduate school, I can say that it is a delusion that is unique to that group of people. (Yours truly was constantly railed by her graduate history advisor for being too polemical. It’s called taking a stand, lady.) Seriously, if the world was run by historians, we would still be eating raw meat and bopping each others’ heads with sticks.
But that’s why Willis’ historian time-travelers are perfect for this type of story. They are likable people, but they all carry with them the arrogance of historians– they think they are outsiders, non-participants, who have no connection to the world around them, other than to observe. Boy, are they wrong!
3. It’s about the Blitz British is just better. There is something about stories written by British authors, and about British characters, that present a charm that is simply absent from other stories. (Or, perhaps I could extend that opinion to European stories versus American stories.) I’ve never been much interested in war stories, but the London blitz is just fascinating, and part of that is due to the targeted culture. Charming enough for tea before an air raid, yet indifferent enough to complain about lack of stockings while bombs fall to the ground. Who else does that?
4. It has the Hodbins Binnie and Alf Hodbin are probably the best characters I’ve read all year. They are peripheral characters in one of the plot strands, but they deserve their own novel. Cockney slum kids turned evacuees during the London blitz, they provide levity and humor while the world around them is blown to bits. While they are surrounded by proper Brits who maintain airs during one of the most horrific wars in history, their casual bluntness and frank morbidity are oddly refreshing and hilarious. If Dickens wrote about WWII, they would be the stars.
Weaknesses in Blackout (I’m nit-picking here.)
1. Uneven plot strands In stories that dedicate each chapter to a different protagonist’s viewpoint, it’s hard for a writer to stay true to the story while giving all of the primary characters equal treatment. It’s something I currently struggle with in my own stories and, frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that uneven plot strands are worth sacrificing for appropriate pacing. However, as a reader, I noticed the patchy treatment of characters and it did bother me. Who the hell is Mary? She just showed up in her own chapter one day, but she was never introduced. Okay, now where the hell did Mary go? It’s been twenty chapters since I saw her last. And who are these guys on the farm with the bull and the tanks? Now where did they go? Maybe Willis did this to introduce more mystery, but all I can wonder is why are these people important enough to get their own chapters, if they’re not important enough to drive most of the plot? This better not be a weak attempt at a deus ex machina sort of thing. (Post-sequel admission: I finally figured out who Mary is.)
2. Inexplicable personality shift of characters Toward the end of Blackout, the characters begin to interact with one another, and I noticed a total shift in personalities. One protagonist– my favorite, so far– went from being a strong, practical, independent woman to being a weepy-eyed, confused, and helpless little sod for absolutely no reason. I wonder if Willis discovered that she had portrayed the characters too similarly and decided create more distinct personalities in order to drive the story and help the reader tell them apart. But it doesn’t work, and it almost makes me dread starting the next book, All Clear. I’m not sure if I like these people anymore.
3. No real explanation about how time travel works It doesn’t really bother me because too much explanation can kill the magic in a story (i.e. Star Wars and its microbiological response to the force), but some readers might be unsatisfied by Willis’ lack of explanation concerning time travel in her cannon. We get vague allusions to a lab, a computer, a net, a shimmer, divergence points, and drops, but no real explanation about how time travel works in this canon. These divergence points are a particularly problematic issue (think fixed points of time that cannot be visited per Doctor Who), because I want to know who (or what) decided on those divergence points. It makes me wonder what processes go into setting up this technology. Is it human estimation that guessed at the most fragile points in time and space, or is there a universal intelligence at work?
4. I’m kind of disappointed there is a second book I have no idea where this book is going, and WWII is a long-assed war, so a sequel is probably appropriate. But I’m exhausted and the climax keeps climbing, even though it seems like a slightly longer book could deliver an appropriately timed and tidy ending. I fear the second book will be mostly filler, especially considering it wasn’t even short-listed for the Hugo. I’m going to read it anyway, but I have my reservations.
Blackout is an awesome book, and will likely be one of my favorites for the year. It’s definitely a 5-star, with mystery, suspense, comedy, and darkness and I encourage all to read it.